Cubs Hall of Famer Billy Williams owns the sixth-longest streak of consecutive games played in MLB history, 1,117 games. At the time he retired, it was the National League record, broken in 1983 by Steve Garvey.
This is the story of the day the streak ended, September 3, 1970.
The Cubs had a fast start to their 1970 season after the disappointment of 1969. They won 11 in a row in April and by early June had a five-game lead in the NL East. Then followed a 12-game losing streak which dropped the team under .500 in late June. (Thus began the “June Swoon,” a collapse endured by many Cubs teams in that era.)
A 19-12 July got them back in contention and on September 2, they defeated the Phillies 17-2 and moved to within one game of the first-place Pirates.
Williams’ consecutive-game streak had begun to wear on him, even though 1970 was one of his best offensive seasons (.322/.391/.586, a career-high 42 home runs, 6.6 bWAR, second place in NL MVP voting). And so, after playing in 1,117 games in a row, Billy asked manager Leo Durocher for a day off. The Cubs won the game 7-2 and moved to within half a game of first place, and from the Tribune recap by Bob Logan:
Williams told reporters circling his locker, “I want to make it clear this was my decision. Leo knew I wanted to get the streak over with.
“When I came into the clubhouse today, Joey [Coach Amalfitano] walked over and said, ‘You’re not in the lineup.’ But Coach [Herman] Franks made it plain that Leo said I could play if I wanted to.”
The Sweet Swinger said his current batting slump [0 for 12] was no factor in the decision.
“I wouldn’t call it a slump,” he said. “There’s nothing wrong with my stroke or timing. I just wasn’t performing and the strain was there physical or mental. It could be both. All I know is that if I start a new streak tomorrow, I want it to include some World Series games. I want to play 10 more years and I know this decision will add time to my career. Right now I have mixed emotions about it, part relief and part sadness. But Leo was 100 percent right when he said I’d rather have a pennant.”
Williams never got that pennant, though he became the only position player among the fabled 1969 Cubs to play in the postseason, playing in three games in the ALCS for the A’s in 1975 and going 0-for-7. Instead of 10 more years after 1970, Billy played six more seasons and retired at age 38 after 1976. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame 11 years later.
Williams’ streak had begun, with no fanfare, on September 21, 1963. Cubs manager (then called “head coach”) Bob Kennedy had given Williams the previous day off against another future Hall of Famer, Braves lefthander Warren Spahn. Williams had played in all the previous 155 games in 1963 and in the final 11 games of the 1962 season, so if he had played that late September 1963 game instead of sitting, his streak would have encompassed 1,284 straight games and he’d still hold the NL record.
Since Cal Ripken broke Lou Gehrig’s supposedly unbreakable consecutive-game streak of 2,130 in 1995 and wound up with 2,632 straight games played, these sorts of streaks have become less important in MLB. Modern managers like giving their players occasional off days and the only streak of this nature since 2000 was posted by Miguel Tejada, 1,152 games between June 2, 2000 and June 21, 2007. The longest active consecutive-game streak is held by Matt Olson of the Braves, who has played in 267 straight games entering today’s action.
Streaks like this are a bygone part of MLB history, and probably for the better. But back then they were a big deal and Billy Williams’ streak of 1,117 consecutive games played ended 52 years ago today, Thursday, September 3, 1970.